My job description is a bit tricky to define.
The media often refers to me in a number of ways, including primatologist, anthropologist, wildlife expert, conservationist, explorer and female Indiana Jones. I love exploring the farthest and most remote corners of the world, and I love the magnificent creatures that roam the planet. Too many, however, are on the verge of extinction. Sometimes I am studying them. Other times I am a happy, albeit unintentional, tourist.
Regardless of the job title, the bottom line is, I love wildlife. Over the last ten years I have worked as a wildlife correspondent for National Geographic, and unquestionably, this job has taken me to some pretty wild and remote places. So when Nat Geo WILD sent me on assignment for my new series, Wild Nights, I was a bit skeptical. It seemed an impossible mission to find rare, exciting and dangerous wildlife in iconic cities like New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, and Miami. I knew I could find some great wild life, but wildlife?
After sampling some of the local, inner-city nightlife (there is an entirely different show on human behavior there), I trekked through urban swamps, lagoons, traffic-heavy streets, hidden passageways, even cemeteries. What I found was a surprising array of creatures that had adapted to city life. And I'm not talking pigeons and possums.
During the filming of Wild Nights I also learned that all conservation is not created equally. In 1996, on my very first expedition, I ventured to a virtually unexplored region of the Amazon rainforest, in search of a little-known primate on the verge of extinction. For weeks, I was led by a local chief, from village to village, in search of this rare creature.
Repeatedly, the villagers reported that they had not seen this species for months. It was not until the last village I approached that I was finally shown one. Unfortunately, it was in a cooking pot. That experience was sobering, and I was amazed to find similar behavior while filming the new show.
Experiences like these serve as a catalyst, motivating me to continue my work as a conservationist. Since that first journey, I've spent almost fifteen years living in remote jungles around the world trying to protect and better understand endangered wildlife. But conservation is not that cut and dry.
While by definition conservation is the act of protecting from loss, it seems that in most cities it is necessary to kill one species to save another. This is thanks mostly to the introduction of various non-native species to big cities, now overrun with feral animals that are wreaking havoc on native wildlife.
Witnessing the adaptation of wild species to the urban jungle is like conducting a scientific experiment to prove what Charles Darwin first observed in the Galapagos.
Nutria are a prime example of this. Native to South America, these large invasive rodents that look something like a large rat crossed with a beaver. They were introduced as creatures bred for the purpose of making fur coats, but the crafty nutria found their way in the wilds and the waterways in several American states where they breed prolifically.
Never having been a hunter, I was uncomfortable when I joined a SWAT team in New Orleans. I watched as they shot these seemingly helpless creatures with high-powered rifles. Ironically, as a conservationist, I actually support this decision to eradicate. The nutria have proven to be overly destructive, demolishing the levees and devouring the native New Orleans ecosystem.
Conservation is not easy, and when you have to kill an animal in the name of conservation, it's especially tough.
Throughout my career, I have come face to face with angry, 400 lb silverback gorillas, been chased by bull elephants in Africa. I've pretty much seen it all. But I never imagined I would be stalking capybara, the world's largest rodent at over 100 pounds, catching bats or wrestling an eight-foot gator onto a small canoe in the middle of a bustling city like Rio de Janeiro.
Perhaps the most unexpected of these urban invaders was New Orleans' feral hogs. These hogs are crazy big and can be very aggressive, so the fact that they are running around in upscale neighborhoods and ferreting around New Orleans City Parks was unbelievable!
Even my very own hometown of Miami, known for a whole different meaning for wild, all you have to do is check out the gigantic sea turtles that hit the beaches. They are the size of Volkswagens, or that chickens were taking over the city, or that full grown alligators, once endangered, now wander into peoples' kitchens?
One thing Wild Nights makes clear is that you don't need to be out in the bush country of Central Africa or on a dugout canoe in the Amazon to witness spectacular, endangered and sometimes dodgy animals.
If you never look at your own backyard in the same way again, Wild Nights will have been just as successful a tool for conservation education as any trip afar.
WATCH as I venture into the Louisiana bayou in the dead of night to catch whatever the swamp has to offer -- and eat it!
Mireya Mayor's Wild Nights premieres on Nat Geo WILD on Monday, August 9 at 9PM ET/PT. For more information, go here. This fall, look for Mireya's new book, Pink Boots & A Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer, in stores near you.